MOSCOW - The Russia Arctic Coast is one of the dirtiest places on earth. According to the most conservative estimates, the shores of the Arctic Ocean are littered with 4 million tons of industrial and construction waste, part of which is toxic.
More than 20,000 pieces of electronics are strewn across the Russian Arctic Coast, rusting. Every year, there are no less than 20,000 instances of burst pipes along the coast, pouring tens of thousands of tons of oil into the ocean. The arctic ecosystem, just as injured and brittle as the Antarctic system, is quickly being destroyed.
Our partners-in-crime in terms of dirtying the Arctic have already been cleaning up for a while. The United States started cleaning up their damage in 1981, not only removing old oil barrels but also removing contaminated soil. Canada has been working on cleaning up for over 15 years, and Norway has been paying attention to the area’s pollution as well.
In comparison, our awareness happened much more recently. It was only this past summer that a pilot program was set up to clean up the dirtiest Arctic Islands in Russian territory. But will it be possible to change what was done in only a couple of decades?
Endless varieties of rusting drums
The condition of the rough, northern islands is horrifying, especially for anyone who has spent time at the other end of the earth, in Antarctica. The contrast could not be more striking. In the Antarctic, you have a strictly protected natural area, in which one is not even allowed to bring foreign plants or animals for fear of interfering with the native flora and fauna. In the arctic, there are endless flatlands, strewn with rusting iron, plastic pipes, hundreds of logs and valleys pockmarked with deteriorating structures that no one uses anymore.
The symbol of the Russian Far North is the drum. There are lots of them, and they come in endless different varieties. There are wood drums and metal drums. There are 200-liter metal drums strew over tens of square kilometers in such an unorganized way that it seems like they were tossed from an invisible hand above. There are half-drums, that people lived in at one time. There are museum pieces, with “Vehrmacht” inscribed in the metal and the date of production, 1942, clearly visible.
Today there are more than three million drums in Russia’s northern islands. When you are standing in a relatively clean area, you will still see 10 to 15 of them within 30 meters. On the one hand, cleaning them up is the green thing to do - on the other hand, it ruins the landscape even more, requiring big trucks that will leave tracks on fragile land for years and spew exhaust into the air. Still, you have to admire the people who have been working 12-hour days in the Arctic to save nature from humankind. Clean-up work has been going on for a year, and only on one of the islands, but hopes are that this island will be clean in three to five years.
Huge oil reserves
The Soviet “take-over” of the Arctic defies logic, in many ways. The landscape is dotted with the rusting carcasses of sophisticated machines, the modern equivalents of which are expensive and kept in highly guarded garages. It’s almost as if they never tried to fix anything, just dumped it in the Arctic instead. It’s not clear exactly what was responsible for the massive pollution in the Arctic Islands, but one thing is clear - if the drums are taken away and the garbage is cleaned up, it will still take years for the Islands to come back to life.
Adding to the challenges is the fact that countries with Arctic territory are starting to talk about drilling for oil there. Allegedly, 25% of the world’s oil supply is under the Arctic Ocean. In my opinion, drilling in this sensitive region is profoundly ill advised, for two reasons. One is the potential environmental impact. In the case of a spill, it would be impossible to stop the leak, since experts have already said that blocking a leak according to current methods is not effective in areas where more than 10% of the surface is covered with ice. A spill would have disastrous consequences for all living things for thousands of kilometers.
But the good news for environmentalists is that there is a good economic reason not to drill in the Arctic. If in fact 25% of the world’s oil reserves are under the Arctic, tapping into that reserve would only cause the price of oil to drop dramatically. That would not be good for any of the countries who are now thinking about investing billions of dollars in drilling in the Arctic. Those countries, Russia, Canada, Norway and the U.S., already have the highest cost of oil production, and would be most hurt by a crash in prices.
As much as it might seem impossible to imagine an international agreement on the Arctic territories, in fact the main countries with territory along the Arctic shores, Russia, Canada, the United States and Norway, might find that that such an agreement would actually work in their best interests, both from an environmental and economic point of view.
See some photos of the Russian Arctic Coast here.